Feb 14, 2013

Atoms are everywhere

The great Caltech physicist Richard Feynman once observed that if you had to reduce scientific history to one important statement it would be “All things are made of atoms.” They are everywhere and they constitute everything. Look around you. It is all atoms. Not just the solid things like walls and tables and sofas, but the air in between. And they are there in numbers that you really cannot conceive.

The basic working arrangement of atoms is the molecule (from the Latin for “little mass”). A molecule is simply two or more atoms working together in a more or less stable arrangement: add two atoms of hydrogen to one of oxygen and you have a molecule of water. Chemists tend to think in terms of molecules rather than elements in much the way that writers tend to think in terms of words and not letters, so it is molecules they count, and these are numerous to say the least. At sea level, at a temperature of 32 degrees Fahrenheit, one cubic centimeter of air (that is, a space about the size of a sugar cube) will contain 45 billion billion molecules. And they are in every single cubic centimeter you see around you. Think how many cubic centimeters there are in the world outside your window — how many sugar cubes it would take to fill that view. Then think how many it would take to build a universe. Atoms, in short, are very abundant.

They are also fantastically durable. Because they are so long lived, atoms really get around. Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms — up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested — probably once belonged to Shakespeare. A billion more each came from Buddha and Genghis Khan and Beethoven, and any other historical figure you care to name. (The personages have to be historical, apparently, as it takes the atoms some decades to become thoroughly redistributed; however much you may wish it, you are not yet one with Elvis Presley.)

So we are all reincarnations — short-lived ones. When we die our atoms will disassemble and move off to find new uses elsewhere — as part of a leaf or other human being or drop of dew. Atoms, however, go on practically forever. Nobody actually knows how long an atom can survive, but according to Martin Rees it is probably about 10 to the power 35 (a 10 with 35 zero’s) years. (Adapted from ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, by Bill Bryson)